It was only a year ago that conservative bloggers and critics in the crowd branded President Obama an elitist for talking about arugula during an appearance in Iowa. To those aware of the local food system, the misguided criticism revealed a clear disconnect; Iowa turns out to be a state full of arugula farms, and the common person wasn't familiar with the vegetable.
Perhaps that's changing.
In Missoula, a reconnection to the food system has taken place over the past decade. Local author Jeremy N. Smith's new book, Growing a Garden City (Skyhorse Publishing), profiles 15 diverse Missoula residents who have changed and been changed by the local food movement, including first graders, college students, troubled teens, single mothers and a homeless-shelter chef. Sprinkled among the personal anecdotes are seven sections about how community gardens, student farms, youth farm therapy and other aspects of the system work. The book includes a forward by environmental writer Bill McKibben and 80 photographs by Sepp Jannotta and Chad Harder. [Full disclosure: Harder is the Indy's photo editor, and Smith has contributed to the paper.]
The Indy spoke with Smith about the project, about dispelling common misconceptions about the local food movement and about how to get children to actually enjoy eating their vegetables.
Independent: People say kids don't like vegetables. What did you find while hanging out with Rattlesnake School first graders?
Smith: How do you make a vegetable attractive to a kid? First of all, you make it dirty. Second of all, you have it in the ground, not in the grocery store. Pulling vegetables is a primal act; it's like pulling that sword from the stone and you can eat the sword. During the field trip, this first grade class doesn't necessarily know that a carrot comes from the ground, in the beginning. They don't necessarily know a squash from a tomato—which makes sense because they've been served a lot of processed food in a lot of plastic boxes. But by the end, they're fighting each other to get more kale. One class [said] that they've replaced their daily snack—whatever it was, cookies or crackers—and they now eat kale. As a snack.
Independent: People have this idea that if you're low-income you probably don't or shouldn't care about local and organic foods.
Smith: Everyone deserves and can have good food. By good we're talking about food produced near them, by people they know, without arduous chemicals, that's fresh so it's full of nutrients, that's beautiful to look at and delicious to eat. The woman I interviewed at Orchard Homes [affordable housing]...had never made homemade pesto, or eaten a homegrown blue potato until she started using the garden there. Now she calls her kid a tomato freak. When it's the winter she says, "I can't handle pre-packaged bags of salad mix." That's maybe not what people expect from someone in a low-income housing development.
I have this thing on my website of fact and fiction, like: "Local, organic food is elitist." But here, in this food system, you have low-income seniors, military veterans, developmentally disabled, public school kids, teen drug addicts. Local food's going to the soup kitchen and the Food Bank. Doesn't sound elitist to me.
Independent: For some people, jumping on the local food wagon can appear daunting.
Smith: You can go small. There are people in this book who devote almost every waking second to growing, preserving, cooking, sharing and eating food. And there are people in this book who tried a few hours a year and are still making an important contribution. For example, at Orchard Gardens and the River Road community farms there's the "Volunteer for Veggies" program where someone can show up for two hours and come home with food for a family of four for a week. They will have not only helped themselves, but helped supply area youth homes, the Food Bank and the Poverello Center and all the other people who rely on that farm for their food. They're getting a screaming deal and doing an amazingly good deed in just a couple of hours.
Independent: Why do you focus on community gardens and not just gardens in general?
Smith: This is not my original idea, but the most important word in "community garden" isn't "garden." I bring friends to the community garden and it's how we catch up and hang out, and the time goes by really quickly. It's like taking a walk with somebody, but at the end I have 50 pounds of tomatoes or 30 pounds of kale or 100 pounds of onions or enough basil to feed the city of Rome for a couple of days. It's social. That relationship becomes important to you, not in a negative obligation sense, but in the sense that it's as fun hanging out here to me as at the Kettlehouse.
Independent: What do you think still needs to happen to make the local food system better?
Smith: The interview with Neva Hassanein, the UM environmental studies professor, speaks well to the larger food system issues, like that Garden City Harvest is essential but hardly the solution to everything. The Food Bank officer in the book talks about how it's a tragedy that food banks exist. A food bank isn't going to solve your problems, it's going to let you face another day. And that's important.
What I come away with is, local food is right here, right around the corner. Every person in Missoula is lucky because every person in Missoula has the chance to have that experience, and I hope that other people in other places get inspired by what's happening here. A meal and a story behind a meal can be a life-changing experience. And this is our story. The take away message is not, "You must do this or you are bad." I don't see it as good or bad. I see it like anything involving food, the same thing your grandmother always told you: "Try it, you might like it."
A Growing a Garden City book release kicks off at the Roxy Theater Thursday, Oct. 7, at 7 PM. Go to growingagardencity.com for info on other upcoming events for the book.